All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go?

In researching content for my topic on Extraordinary Performance I came across this article by Peter Bregman at Fast Company and thought it worth reprinting to help deal with a difficult colleague, motivate better teamwork, boost morale and productivity…

Stress doesn’t discriminate between good and bad. It comes, unbidden, anytime we are in a situation in which we are worried about an outcome we feel is beyond our control. So we complain. We gossip. We get snarky. Which quickly infects those around us. And then they complain, gossip, and snark. Pretty soon we’re competing for who’s most stressed. Who’s got the most work. Who’s got the most ungrateful, unreasonable boss. Which, of course, just makes us all more stressed. What is the best way to cope with feeling overwhelmed while also managing the complaining, gossiping, snarky colleague? How should we respond without becoming that person ourselves?

Offer to do some of their work for them.

I know it sounds crazy because you’re already so busy. Probably busier than then they are. Even if you did have the time and energy to help them, you might not be feeling so generous towards them because all of their complaining is annoying. On top of that, if you’re competing for who’s the busiest, how will it look to offer to do their work? You’ll lose that battle for sure. But you’ll win the war on stress.

We complain because we feel alone and disconnected in our stress. So we gossip to create camaraderie with our fellow gossiper. We get snarky about our boss to align ourselves with our colleague.

But complaining and gossiping are like my chocolate chip peanut butter Rice Krispies mixture — they make us feel good while we’re doing it, but we feel worse immediately afterward. Complaining breeds distrust with our colleagues, it infuses the office with negativity, it wastes time, and it solidifies our sense of isolation. Offering to take some of their work, on the other hand, achieves the opposite; it creates connection, which, ultimately, is what we’re after.

If someone were really in serious trouble — think of the people in Japan after the tsunami — we wouldn’t hesitate to reach out and help. Think of this as that same, generous, human response only on a much smaller, less critical scale.

The unexpected offer will immediately change the dynamic. Who would continue to complain in the face of an offer to share the burden? It builds trust, creates a positive work atmosphere and gets things done.

It also helps you get your own work done. Reaching out in an act of generosity makes you feel better and moves you away from your stress and toward your productivity. By acting as if you have the capacity to help someone out, you actually gain that capacity.

So how should you do it?

1. Listen without contributing or competing. Empathize with the other person’s challenge. Resist the temptation to join in, add your own juicy piece of gossip, or talk about how much work you have and how hard it is for you, too. Just listen.

2. Acknowledge the challenge she is facing. In one or two short sentences, let them know that you understand they’re in a tough, stressful spot. Don’t patronize; don’t add on. This might be hard if you feel like you’re in a tough spot, too, but you don’t need to agree with what they’re saying. You just need to convey that you hear what they’re saying.

3. Offer to help in a specific way. Maybe they’re dreading a conversation with someone and you can offer to intervene on their behalf. Maybe you can help them out in a personal way like grabbing lunch for them when you get your own, saving them the trip. Don’t worry that they might become dependent on your doing their work for them. Sure there’s a risk they might take you for granted. But, more likely, they’ll be appreciative, stop complaining, and you’ll both get to work with renewed energy. Next time, they might even do the same for you. Which is how a great, productive team operates.


3 Responses to “All Stressed Up and Nowhere to Go?”

  1. Crystal Washington Says:

    Good repost. This can be a difficult issue to tackle! I’ll admit, taking on some of the complainer’s workload is not something that I would have thought to do. However, I see how it could make a bad situation better. Thanks for sharing!

    • theresabehenna Says:

      Appreciate your input Crystal. It’s kinda sorta like ‘killing with kindness’. When someone is angry, frustrated and stressed out the best way to handle them is with a quiet act of kindess. They have no recourse but to regroup and calm down.

      Who would have thunk it, right?

  2. Crystal Washington Says:

    Good point regarding ‘killing with kindness’. Thank you for helping me think outside of the box!

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